A Guide to Deconstructing and Resisting the Hijacking of Decolonial Struggles

ПРАВДА [pravda] / in GOD we TRUST, Installation by de_colonialanguage collective (Olesya Gonserovskaya, Denis Esakov) in Open Air Museum of Decoloniality, May 2024, Berlin
ПРАВДА [pravda] / in GOD we TRUST, Installation by de_colonialanguage collective (Olesya Gonserovskaya, Denis Esakov) in Open Air Museum of Decoloniality, May 2024, Berlin

For centuries, Western domination has been a political, cultural, and ultimately economic condition under which much of the world has suffered – and against which emancipatory movements, such as decolonization struggles, have rebelled. At the same time, both anti-Western and anti-colonial rhetoric have been appropriated by authoritarian and imperial actors to reinforce reactionary power structures of domination. Saltanat Shoshanova and Marina Solntseva zoom in on the case of Russia to show how this appropriation – or rather, hijacking – works and how we can disarm its toxic and oppressive effects. A guide for scholars and activists.

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In today’s political climate, the polarization of opinions and the complexity of arguments define our times. Nevertheless, we, two decolonial scholars and activists, were surprised to learn that Walter Mingolo – one of the prominent decolonial thinkers, a mentor and long-time collaborator of Madina Tlostanova (who in turn has had a significant impact on decolonial thought in the post-Soviet space) –has decided to label Russia as a decolonial state (Mignolo, 2023). Yikes! Such a blow to decolonial discourse makes it harder to argue for the decolonial option. Our colleagues, such as Selbi Durdieva (2023), have already written academic and semi-academic texts critiquing Mignolo’s position, but we felt the need to create an easy-to-use, argument-packed guide to help you tackle questions like “Isn’t Russia’s war decolonial?” and “Why can’t Turkmen Bashi be considered a decolonial ruler?”

How can we distinguish decolonial discourse from non-decolonial discourse? There are some thoughts to equip you with clear and compelling points to navigate these debates.

Remember that Russia was and is a colonial state

Mignolo whitewashes Russia and justifies its war in Ukraine by downplaying or ignoring the colonial and imperialist aspects of Russia’s historical and contemporary actions. Russia’s imperial and Soviet legacies demonstrate its colonial nature. The application of colonial logic to its non-Russian subjects is evident. For example, the narrative of “civilizing the savage,” the forced sedentarization of nomads, and the erasure of local languages and cultures, such as in the Kazakh context, illustrate this colonial mindset and practice (Cameron, 2018).

Mignolo writes that nation-states such as China, Russia, and Iran “did not endure settler colonialism prior to their formation” (Mignolo, 2023). However, it is crucial to recognize that Russia, particularly during the Soviet era, engaged in various forms of settler colonialism. One notable example is the practice of so-called osvoenie – a colonial strategy that involved geological exploration and the appropriation of land through initiatives such as the “cultivation of virgin lands” (Dmitrievskaya, 2023). This process effectively transformed and claimed these lands as part of the Soviet state. In short, the framework of Soviet settler colonialism (Kassymbekova and Chokobaeva, 2023) is crucial for understanding contemporary Russia.

Don’t mix anti-Western with decolonial

Vladimir Putin appropriates a strong anti-Western discourse, positioning Russia as ‘the leader of a new anti-colonial movement committed to traditional, conservative values.’ He frames Western colonialism as a common threat, aligning Russia’s struggle against the West with “Africa’s struggle for independence and against colonialism” (Putin, 2022). He asserts: “For many years, Western ideologists and politicians told the world that there was no alternative to democracy. Admittedly, they meant the Western style, the so-called liberal model of democracy. […] This way has been taking shape since colonial times, as if everyone is second-rate while they are exceptional. It has been going on for centuries and continues to this day.”

What a ‘wonderful’ manifesto! But can it be called decolonial? Certainly not. While Western colonialism deserves criticism and Africa’s ongoing struggle for independence and decolonization deserves support, Putin needs to look in the mirror. His anti-Western ideas are not decolonial. Instead Putin is merely disguising Russia’s own national and imperial ambitions as decolonial.

Even Madina Tlostanova discusses this need for a double critique: “If in the past many decolonial thinkers were inclined to a double critique of both the West and local (neo)colonial structures, now everything is simplified to the criticism of just the West. Meanwhile, strange authoritarian regimes on the fringes of modernity are almost justified by them” (Interview with Tlostanova, 2023).

Interestingly, Mignolo himself admits that “decoloniality is not and cannot be a state-regulated project, and therefore decoloniality cannot be confused with de-Westernization” (Mignolo, 2023), yet he fails to deconstruct the discourse of Russia as a decolonial force.

Don’t mix “the Marxist Facade” with decolonial

The Soviet Union ‘branded’ itself and its foreign policy as ‘anti-imperialist’ while building colonial power relations from the Russian center to the non-Russian peripheries (@de_colonialanguage, 2024). To this day, this ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse functions as a smokescreen to obscure Russia’s national, imperial, and colonial expansions.

The Soviet Union needed and found allies in the Global South. This is why some African and South American decolonial discourses still express gratitude from the past for pursuing an ‘anti-Western’ policy and promoting the idea of a multipolar world. Similarly, the historical ties between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Soviet Union were shaped by a common leftist critique of transnational capital.

However, this past is less reflected in decolonial positions. A rare example is the exhibition and research project “Echoes of the Brother Countries” (2024). Even if modern Russia still bears traces of socialist and Marxist ideas and seems to be enveloped in a residual cloud of ‘leftist’ thought, the ideology of contemporary Russia has little in common with leftist practices of collectivity. And even in the Soviet Union, these leftist practices were often more projected potential than lived reality.

Don’t mix “the friendship of nations” with decolonial 

Russia has been very successful in hiding not only behind a ‘Marxist facade’ but also behind the internationalist myth of ‘friendship of nations.’ While the Soviet Union promoted the myth of ‘friendship of nations,’ it simultaneously established colonial-dependent relations. The Russians were seen as the superior nation among others. For example, during World War II, Joseph Stalin referred to the Russians as the main backbone of the Soviet Union. He noted this in a 1945 speech, calling the Russian people “the most outstanding nation” among all the nations of the Soviet Union. Non-Russian nations could relate to the Soviet Union only by affirming Russian leadership, and any manifestation of national identity could be considered an insult. The destruction of national elites that began in 1937 continued until Stalin’s death in 1953. That doesn’t sound like friendship, does it?

Sadly, not much has changed. In April 2024, the so-called non-profit organization Eurasia opened offices in Armenia, and similar offices will soon open in Moldova, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, with the main office located in Moscow. Officially, this non-profit organization was created to promote ‘the interests of citizens in the post-Soviet space’ through programs for youth, teachers, journalists, etc. Eurasia has also launched a campaign to find “new ambassadors of Eurasia.” It seems, the same narratives all over again.

Don’t mix multipolarity with decoloniality

Mignolo argues that “Russia’s 2022 special operation in Ukraine,” which he believes was a response to NATO provocations with the help of the government of Ukraine, marks a significant change in the global order. He calls this new order “the multipolar world” (Mingolo, 2023). First, he uses the Kreml’s euphemism ‘special operation’ and does not call the actions in Ukraine what they really are: a war of aggression. Second, he asserts the arrival of a multipolar world order and calls it decolonial. But we should not be fooled by the ‘multipolar’ idea! Even if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, sometimes it is indeed – not a duck at all.

The idea of multipolarity has been appropriated by far-right philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, who writes in his “Fourth Political Theory” (2012) that “the idea of a multipolar world, where the number of poles and civilizations is equal, will offer humanity a wide range of cultural, philosophical, social and spiritual alternatives.” At first glance, this sounds very nice: having a diversity of world powers and recognizing the importance of cultural and religious differences. Although some might call Eurasianism “a forerunner of postcolonial theory,” in Dugin’s system of thought, multipolarity serves as part of reactionary anti-Western rhetoric and supports the colonial ‘neo-Eurasianist’ ideology of contemporary Russia (Laruelle, 2008).

While Dugin talks about the idea of multipolarity, he also heads the traditionalist Tsargrad Institute and a political school named after the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who, by the way, sympathized with both Italian fascists and German Nazis (Budraĭtskis, 2016). So don’t be fooled by the ‘multipolar’ idea. As appropriated by the Kremlin, it can serve as a smokescreen for authoritarianism and outright fascism, as Kavita Krishnan (2022) argues.

Don’t mix ‘non-russian’ with decolonial 

Simply being non-Russian, e.g. people from former Soviet republics, does not automatically mean that a person holds decolonial views; it is important to carefully analyze the ideas they express. For example, Esen Usubaliev from Kyrgyzstan, who supports the idea of a ‘new world order,’ or Mika Badalyan from Armenia, who advocates building a people’s diplomacy among Eurasian countries, are probably not motivated by decolonial motifs. Even if someone shifts the center of power from Russia to Kazakhstan and still promotes neo-Eurasian ideas, like the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov, they are not necessarily decolonial activists.

As Mohira Suyarkulova has argued, certain ‘anti-colonial’ actions by Central Asian rulers that are ostensibly directed against Western dominance but at the same time strengthen national-authoritarian structures cannot automatically be said to serve decolonial purposes. Turkmenbashi, who banned ‘European’ ballet; Islam Karimov, who defended Uzbek national sovereignty against Moscow; and Sadyr Zhaparov, who nationalized a gold mining company formerly owned by Canadian investors, remain authoritarian leaders.

It is therefore important to consider not only who is speaking, but also what they are saying. If a person supports reactionary and oppressive power structures, they are helping to reproduce and prolong the injustices and inequalities that make up our world and hence cannot be considered decolonial.

Embrace decolonial struggle from the bottom up

With this guide, we have provided substantial evidence of how decolonial thought is being hijacked by figures like Putin, Dugin, and even Mignolo himself. For example, Mignolo joined the Council for the Dialogue of Civilizations, a program (sponsored by oligarch Vladimir Yakunin, now under sanctions) that organized the Rhodes Forum, an annual event with a predominantly anti-Western agenda. At the same time, he was invited to serve on the jury for the Decolonial Memorial in Berlin, a relatively neutral and uncritical project that will soon open in front of the Berlin Global Village. This indicates a shift towards accommodation with the structures and powers he once criticized.

However, it is crucial to recognize that there are real decolonial movements fighting against Russian colonialism. They exist in Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and even within Russia, such as in Bashkortostan, the Sakha Republic. These movements are led by indigenous scholars and activists and remain largely invisible in Western academia. The power of these movements has been recognized by the state, as they have recently been branded ‘separatist and extremist’ by the Russian authorities and targeted through the adoption of an ‘Anti-Russian Separatist Movements Law.’ This law mirrors the repressive logic of laws against the so-called ‘international LGBT movement,’ targeting queer people and activist groups in Russia.

It would be incorrect, however, to reduce contemporary decolonial thinking to a bottom-up approach. It is much broader and more diverse, including different perspectives, methods and viewpoints. For example, the idea of collaborative excolonialism (‘ex’-from exit) suggests that settlers and Indigenous people in Australia join hands, seek and develop practices to exit postcolonial reality (Bignall, 2024).

How can one check whether decolonial debates are emancipatory? You can do a simple intersectionality check. Putin, Dugin and their advocates will not support the feminist and queer movement because their ostensible ‘decoloniality’ is just a part of reactionary ideology and power propaganda and has nothing to do with social struggle. Emancipatory decolonial debates, on the other hand, should include perspectives from different underprivileged groups, address systemic oppression, and build on principles of solidarity and horizontality. If decolonial discussions do not include these diverse viewpoints, they are likely to serve power agendas rather than true decolonization.

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